Martin Kastner: Aviary's glass master
The serviceware designer at Grant Achatz's new bar went from fixing locks at a medieval Czech castle to transforming the way you consume cocktails.
Aesthetically, Kastner’s designs have come a long way from where he started in the early ’90s in the Czech Republic, where he grew up. After graduating from an applied-arts secondary school with a specialty in blacksmithing in his late teens, he spent a year and a half living and working at a medieval castle, where he repaired box locks, window grilles and gates (and, bizarrely, fed bears in the castle’s moat). “You’re not allowed to alter the integrity of whatever you’re working on [by using modern methods],” Kastner explains, “so you’re constantly trying to put yourself in the shoes of whoever it is that could have been making those pieces you’re working on. Having to think as somebody else, I lost interest in it.”
Kastner returned to art school in Prague, where he studied jewelry design. While in school, he met his future wife, Lara, an American expat who brought him to Columbus, Ohio. Unable to find work as a blacksmith in the States (imagine!), he started Crucial Detail—part job shop, part design studio and part fabricator. On occasion, he joined Lara to roll dough for her night shift at a bakery. It was then that Kastner started thinking about the intersection of food and design. “The thing about food is that it’s a cultural medium and at the same time, nutrition we need. It’s kind of unexploited in a sense,” he says. Kastner asked the pastry chef at the bakery if there was anything the chef couldn’t do using the tools already available; all the chef said he needed were a few basic stainless-steel cake molds. Though the request didn’t inspire much creativity, Kastner made the molds.
Kastner received an e-mail in 2003 from Grant Achatz, then a chef at Evanston’s Trio, who was looking for an industrial designer to envision new ways of presenting food. Of the 47 designers Achatz contacted, Kastner was the only one who replied.
For a trial run, Achatz presented him with the problem of how to serve a flavored ice ball; Kastner replied with about seven designs. “Each design he submitted was a little more avant-garde,” Achatz says, explaining how Kastner clearly had his mind set on the most out-there design but was acclimating Achatz’s palate by first introducing less-challenging versions.
Between 2003 and 2004, Kastner and Achatz collaborated on three designs for Trio, followed by dozens more for the launch of Alinea. Meanwhile, Lara started documenting Achatz’s dishes (her photography appears in Achatz’s self-published 2008 book, Alinea, which Kastner designed), and in 2005, the couple relocated to Chicago to work with the Alinea team. Thirty design collaborations later (as well as the menu and website design), Kastner’s serviceware is as central to the Alinea experience as the food. The six-pronged sugar tongs have even become a purloined keepsake for sneaky diners who slip the utensil into their bags.